In complete contrast to the man who was a viable contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination just months ago, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell instead became the state’s first governor to don a prison sentence last Tuesday.
Inside a Richmond courtroom on Jan. 6, federal Judge James R. Spencer mandated McDonnell report to a federal prison in Petersburg by Feb. 9 to begin serving a two-year sentence. In September, McDonnell received a guilty verdict on 11 public corruption charges by a unanimous federal jury.
“I am a fallen human being,” McDonnell said to reporters outside the courtroom on Tuesday after his sentencing. “I’ve made mistakes in my life.”
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were jointly indicted in January 2014 for bartering their political influence in exchange for $177,000 in loans and gifts from Jonnie Williams, the former CEO of a pharmaceutical company, Star Scientific, Inc.
Williams, a wealthy Richmond businessman, provided golf outings, luxury vacations, designer clothing, a Rolex, catering for one of their daughters’ wedding and $120,000 in sweetheart loans for the former governor and first lady.
In exchange, prosecutors argued that the couple promoted Star Scientific’s products by hosting events at the governor’s mansion, shaping guest lists and requesting state-funded studies.
Federal sentencing guidelines indicated McDonnell deserved six to eight years in prison for the grand jury’s September verdict.
McDonnell’s defense hoped to persuade Spencer on Tuesday that three years of community service would suffice for a man whose shattered reputation was sanction enough. The prosecution maintained he deserved at least a decade behind bars.
The Washington Post reported that before delivering McDonnell’s fate on Tuesday, Spencer expressed his disagreement with the federal sentencing guidelines, calling their recommendation, “ridiculous, under these facts.”
This portion of Spencer’s assessment was hinged upon what made the McDonnells’ five-week trial this summer so controversial.
Williams, who assumed the role of both benefactor and argued beneficiary in the political scandal, was granted complete immunity for his testimony during trial—and hence served as the prosecution’s key witness in a strongly circumstantial case.
Furthermore, the McDonnells’ dysfunctional marriage was thrown into the public limelight, and the defense painted an unflattering picture of Maureen McDonnell as greedy, manipulative and at the crux of the unfolding drama throughout the former governor’s trial this summer.
Spencer also addressed this aspect of the case before delivering McDonnell’s sentence.
“While Mrs. McDonnell may have allowed the serpent into the mansion, the governor knowingly let him into his personal and business affairs,” the judge stated, according to the Washington Post.
Spencer also heard from several character witnesses on the defense’s behalf before delivering the sentence. More than 400 people also wrote letters of support for McDonnell, including former Democratic Gov. and current U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.
One of the character witnesses was former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, an adjunct professor at VCU and the namesake of the university’s School of Government and Public Affairs.
After the sentencing, defense attorney John Brownlee told reporters that Wilder’s testimony was “probably one of the best defense witnesses I have ever seen in my 20-plus years in court.”
Wilder spoke highly of McDonnell throughout his testimony, and sparred tenaciously with the prosecution during cross-examination.
“Bob McDonnell, had he not run afoul relative to the charges being brought in this court and in this case (…) would be on the short list for President in this country,” Wilder told the courtroom, adding that under different circumstances, McDonnell would have ranked as one of the best governors Virginia has had.
Wilder earned applause from the gallery when he said during his cross-exam that the “progenitor of the bribe” is “walking away clean.”
When assistant U.S. attorney for the prosecution Michael Dry asked Wilder if he would have accepted a Rolex watch from someone wanting to do business with him while governor, Wilder simply responded: “I usually bought my own.”
Maureen McDonnell was found guilty on eight counts of corruption and a count of obstruction of justice. She will be sentenced Feb. 20.
Charles James, a partner at Williams Mullen law firm and formerly a federal prosecutor, said he thinks Spencer will sentence the former first lady according to her conduct, convictions and personal history, but given Tuesday’s outcome, she will likely receive a sentence below the advisory guidelines as well.
McDonnell’s attorneys have eight days left to file an appeal, and vowed they would outside the court house on Tuesday.
“Given the length of the appeals process and the sentencing imposed, McDonnell could serve a significant portion of his sentence before the 4th Circuit decided whether to take, much less decide the issues presented,” James said.
The former governor and first lady have lived separately since their trial began this summer. Star Scientific, Inc. has changed leadership and been renamed to RockCreek Pharmaceuticals Inc.
“Like many Virginians, I am saddened by the effect this trial has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for clean, effective government,” said current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a statement on Tuesday.
McDonnell was indicted only 10 days after McAuliffe took office last January.